It starts with the student

July 21, 2000

A sea change in thephilosophy of learningis needed to retain the mutually beneficial link between teaching and research, argues Lewis Elton

What are the academic life skills of a university graduate? To be able to think constructively, argue coherently, judge dispassionately and tackle problems effectively. To these have been added more recently general personal and interpersonal skills, but it is the academic skills that have been and rightly still are the hallmark of universities.

They were inherent in Humboldt's prescription for the University of Berlin in 1810, where modern university education started: that in universities, learning should not be in terms of the passing on of well-established knowledge, but always in terms of not yet completely solved problems. Thus, the processes of research and teaching in universities are very similar. Both are concerned with problematic inquiry into new learning: in the case of research, learning that is essentially new; in teaching, learning that is new for the student. Any activity that is not in this sense problematic, is not appropriate for a university, whether it is the routine discovery of new data in research or the unquestioning teaching of well-established matter. Thus, universities are defined in terms of the activities appropriate for them, whether in research or teaching. Within that definition, it is obviously possible to make a judgement whether a particular teaching or research activity is "good" - that is, of high quality.

The confusion between what is and what is not appropriate in a university and what are activities of high quality has bedevilled discussion of the relationship between research and teaching. The original demand of Humboldt that research and teaching should take place in a spirit of inquiry, which is the justification for the argument that they should not be practised in separate institutions, has been transmogrified into the academic urban myth that research per se benefits teaching.

Unfortunately, no such simple statement can be justified. Researchers who thought otherwise and concluded that their simplistic approaches were valid have been hoist with their own petard. Since they could not prove their case, they appear to have convinced the Treasury that research and teaching can be funded separately and need not therefore necessarily take place in the same institutions.

The valid argument for the link between research and teaching is quite different. What has to be investigated is whether such a link favours research and teaching appropriate for a university. The requirement for a problematic approach to research and teaching necessitates both to be based on relevant creative scholarship. The requirement that both lead to learning puts a much greater stress on the learning outcome of both than is commonly the case.

Much university teaching, particularly when based on the traditional lecture, may be scholarly for the teachers but for far too many of their students results in superficial learning. Furthermore, the concept of scholarship is restricted to that linked to traditional disciplines. There are other equally valid scholarships - for example, of teaching, application and integration, as pointed out by Charles Boyer in his important Carnegie report (Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate 1990) - that are undervalued in the traditional university. In the expansion to a mass higher education system we can no longer afford to ignore these if we are to provide a university education for all who can profit from it. The alternative is the elitist concept of restricting scholarship to that of the disciplines and restricting a genuine university education to a minority of students, mainly in very traditional universities. Here the research selectivity exercise has much to answer for.

Fortunately, there is considerable hope that curricula based on interdisciplinary problems rather than on single discipline syllabuses, in which the students are at the centre of the teaching and learning process, can integrate a range of scholarships and achieve for the many students of today what traditional teaching may have achieved for students in the past.

While it will be necessary to change the attitude of universities to research and teaching, the major change will have to be in a radically changed approach to the teaching and learning process. This change will have to go beyond that from discipline-based to problem-based curricula. It will also require that the problems that students tackle and the sophistication with which they tackle them should tax students at their level and not at that of their teachers.

The best university teachers know the levels of sophistication appropriate for the scholarships that support their research and their teaching and know that they are different. An example of one who learned this fact the hard way was Richard Feynman, whose brilliant lectures to first-year undergraduates were found to be appropriate for at most 10 per cent of his students, but a high proportion of his colleagues.

Finally, those 10 per cent of students may continue the academic urban myth, for they include the future university teachers who, by imitating their elders, perpetuate out-of-date ideas of what constitutes scholarship and out-of-date approaches to teaching. Hence if we want to do the best for all our students and provide them with a university education that they will value and remember with respect and affection, we must keep research and teaching together in all our universities, but we must change our approach to both and base them on a range of scholarships.

The centre of the teaching and learning process must become the student. In the words of Heidegger, "the teacher is ahead of his apprentices in this alone, that he has still far more to learn than they - he has to learn to let them learn". To achieve this will constitute a radical change of attitude for the majority of teachers and should form a Faustian bargain between the professors and the Treasury: give us adequate resources and we will change our ways.

The alternative is that research and teaching become enemies with teaching the inevitable loser.

Lewis Elton is professor of higher education, University College London.

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